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July 3, 2008

Elizabeth Brundage: It's Not Always About the Book

Posted by carol
Today guest blogger Elizabeth Brundage, author of the novels The Doctor's Wife and Somebody Else's Daughter (which is on sale today), shares some observations about book groups --- the different perspectives members bring to a conversation, what she finds most satisfying as a writer and why it's important to discuss the written word.

A book group is a writer's best friend. I have met with book groups across the country, both in person and by telephone, and I am always impressed by the intelligence and knowledge of the participants. Some groups focus entirely on story, the intricacies of plot, while others are more interested in the characters, the choices they make, good and bad. Other groups like to hunker down and hash out the big issues.

I think the book group phenomenon has been great for people because, unlike the assigned reading we all had in high school, where many of us relied on the blessed enlightenment of Spark Notes, we are not going to be tested on our thoughts and impressions, and many of us come to realize that we're a whole lot smarter when it comes to this stuff than we thought. So, as it turns out, reading is much more entertaining than it was back in tenth grade, when many of us were sweating our way through Pride and Prejudice. And the truth is, reading should be fun --- it should be absolutely thrilling. I always say boring doesn't make it "literary." Consider the Russian novels, the first great psychological thrillers, with characters so richly complex --- characters like Raskolnikov in Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment --- readers become so disturbed they can't resist turning pages. So often I've heard readers exclaim, "Wow, that really was a great book --- I hated it in high school!" In this regard, reading groups present a wonderful opportunity to reread the greatest books ever written by writers who are all but forgotten.

For a writer, there is nothing more satisfying than meeting one's readers, hearing their ideas about the work, their complaints and observations. Book groups are a forum for all kinds of discussion and discourse, and books are often just springboards for larger conversations about our culture and our lives. In my own work, I attempt to examine a variety of social problems and it has been fascinating to hear what people have to say about some of these issues.

My first novel, The Doctor's Wife, explored the conflict surrounding Reproductive Rights --- it was so interesting to hear what readers felt and thought about the "issue" in relation to their own lives, their own personal stories. I was surprised by how severely some of the readers judged my characters. It occurred to me that it is part of why people read --- the opportunity to watch a character confront a problem and figure out how to solve it, for better or worse.

Book groups provide readers with an opportunity to voice their opinions about subjects that affect us all. It is so good for people to talk! It is wonderful to gather together to discuss the written word --- along with a little good food and wine. What I've learned as a writer is that it's not always about the book. The book --- any book --- is a good excuse to get down to the nitty gritty about who we are, how we feel, and what we want and need as human beings. It's an important aspect of cultural progress. And a little good wine doesn't hurt, either.

---Elizabeth Brundage